Brrr. It’s a little chilly here in Studio AP, where I put together these little dispatches from Italy’s version of Vermont. I could blame Vladimir Putin for the lack of heat, but that’s too easy. Besides, we have lots of propane right now. But the fact is, this is Europe in the Italyland province, and houses were built more to shield us from the heat of summer than the cold of winter.
I shouldn’t complain anyway. It’s January, and this month has been fairly benign. And it’s leagues better than the typical New York January, which I hear and my iPhone’s weather app tells me hasn’t been so bad this month for a change. And how’s this for role reversal? We had a real, actual, white, wet snowstorm earlier this week. It gave us lazy sods an even better excuse to build a fire and drink hot liquids and not do much else except for reading and finding good cooking videos on YouTube.
When people hear that you’re going to Italy, that usually conjures up a whole bunch of images. Golden sun, sports cars roaring along a curvy beach road, high fashion, great wine, and pasta. So much for high fashion: Most of the young and cool this week seemed to be wearing sweats, NorthFace puffy jackets, and Timberland boots. Yes, Timberland. The brand is huge here and there are Timberland stores everywhere, from the local upscale mall, er, sorry, centro commerciale to the main street in town where everyone walks up and down between 18:00 and 20:00 (6 pm-8 pm to you nord americani) to window shop, meet friends, and have a drink before dinner.
You might notice that there isn’t much of that here. Despite an app that told me it was almost springlike in Perugia, it was blustery and freezing and no one was lingering over anything, much less a cold alcoholic libation. In warmer weather, this pedestrian street is filled with tables and chairs and 20-somethings hoping to get lucky.
And how about the main piazza? Ditto.
We had to run a couple of errands in town. That usually means the aforementioned drinks while lingering at an outdoor table—a table set in the middle of the Corso Vannucci, for example, where that first picture was taken. We might meet friends walking around. And we like to go to the end of the street where there’s a nice cool green spot with a view of the Tiber Valley below. Instead, we rushed up the escalators from the Minimetrò (we parked the car in the big parking lot at the base of the hill) and headed straight to a clothing store to look for gifts. I was bundled up, but it didn’t keep me from looking longingly at some warm hats, I remembered that my coat has a down-lined hood and resisted temptation.
Then we ran to another shop. I can’t say anything about that because the thing we bought will be someone’s surprise. And we don’t want to spoil that, do we?
All good boys and girls get a treat at the end of this. I’d been jonesing for some Italian hot chocolate, and yesterday was the perfect time for it. We found our favorite bar to have it, and found a table. The waiter smiled when we told him yes please, with whipped cream on top. Italian panna, or whipped cream, isn’t sweet at all but it’s intensely milky. It balanced the luscious deep chocolate, which really is more like molten dark chocolate pudding. How could we not?
Otherwise, it goes. After a brief bureaucratic tussle over a supposedly unpaid bill for propane, we got a delivery. So now we old folks don’t have to build a fire if we want to stay warm. Turning on the gas will cost us, but when you stumble out of bed and need coffee and to stare at the walls and/or the scenery, the last thing we need is to empty out the fireplace, stack some wood in it again and set it on fire.
It’s snowing today and our region is, as we say in Italian, “in tilt.” It’s more than the gentle flakes or even the short blizzard of flurries, if there can be such a thing. So for awhile we were out of power. I didn’t have an unread book handy, so I got my trusty laptop, which I can use for days without charging, and looked through old files on my hard drive.
Scrolling through my digital detritus, I found this essay that I’d written pre-Covid pandemic. I have no idea why I wrote it, what, if any, audience I was thinking of—whether, for example it was for this blog or not. It looks as though I wrote it quickly, right after the dinner I’d gone to. And boy, it rings even truer today than back in 2019. So I hope you don’t mind if I recycle it here, slightly edited to fit my current writing style:
I HAD DINNER WITH friends the other night in Lower Manhattan near the South Street Seaport. Dinner was at Barbalu, the successor to a place I’ve been going to for almost ten years; the original version of the chic restaurant/Italian market was flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s a friendly place; I know the owners and this later version features authentic modern Italian food in a rustic yet sleek setting.
I live on Staten Island, so I took the ferry across the harbor and walked about 20 minutes up to Barbalu. As far as commutes go in New York City, it’s painless and even scenic. When I had a regular day job, I took that ferry nearly every workday for some 30 years. In my last decade of trudging to a newsroom, my daily commute tracked my trip to the restaurant, except that the walk to work from the ferry was a little shorter. I’m a native New Yorker and have lived in the city just about all my life.
But that night, I felt like a tourist.
I can explain. I’m in New York for what seems like a fleeting visit. My wife, now retired, and I bought a country house in the Italian region of Umbria a couple of years ago. We’d planned to stay there sporadically, whenever I could get away. We were thinking of retirement, and retirement at the time seemed like something that would happen in the future. A couple of years away at least, in fact.
But our staying in the house for more than a quick week or two at a time came much sooner. Like many media professionals, I was excessed a couple of years ago along with about 20 of my colleagues. I’m not really supposed to talk about it, but the move supposedly was part of a sweeping redesign of our news operation, and as one corporate officer told me during what was surely a scripted phone call, “Your position has been eliminated.” (It wasn’t; they merely changed the name of it for a few months, then back to the original after we’d signed our severance agreements.)
So I, along with my comrades in words, had to reinvent ourselves. I became a freelance writer, and I don’t need to be anywhere in particular physically to do my work. Hence, Italy for at least a few months a year, in my spare euro-modern office or, better, at a garden table watching the view as I procrastinate.
Inevitably, our country stays got longer and longer, and now amount to half the year. We can do this because of a precious gift from my immigrant father: an Italian passport. So we’ve been busy integrating ourselves into our little community. It’s a big change for a city boy like me. We live in a mountainous area in the foothills of the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian peninsula. Our neighbors are some 125 sheep and the people who own and care for them. When we take a walk, we amble down our road, waving to the hardy old—and retired—people who’ve lived in the town all their lives, and I’m sure their families have been there for centuries. Or, since we’re located in the middle of a network of hiking trails, we go exploring the hills when I’m done with my work, trudging up and down mountain paths and occasionally finding a ruin or wild asparagus in the woods.
But we’re in New York now [OK, I was in April 2019], and I have to say that I’m shocked that I feel so odd walking around my city. I was on the ferry that night, and I watched the tourists and the orthodox Jews and their families enjoying the ride during the week of Passover. And I realized that I’m a tourist too these days, here in town for only a few weeks.
The realization hit me viscerally, and this strange feeling of psychological distance stayed with me as I navigated streets that I’ve walked thousands of times. For one thing, since I stopped working in the neighborhood two years ago, a lot has changed. There’s a Hilton Garden Inn on Water Street, a truly strange name for a bland building that’s nowhere near a garden.
There are lots of new restaurants and lunch takeout spots, something normal in a town where eateries fold and open at a rapid clip. There’s something odd about the new places. They advertise their wares in their simple names, like Greens and Fresh. I’m an addicted menu reader, and their food seems to come from nowhere but some Californian notion of “natural” food: lots of kale, grains, an Asian overlay in the flavorings, bowls. The word “bowl” makes me smile; in four letters it manages to connote a lively lifestyle, clean living—lots of bike riding and yoga classes.
I SUPPOSE THAT I’m an old curmudgeon. But curmudgeons aren’t necessarily alienated from a place—just from a period of time. Walking through the oldest part of New York that’s busy remaking itself, I felt conflicting emotions, happiness that I would escape to my mountaintop soon, but a kind of sadness for feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the city where I was born. The contradiction actually made me feel queasy, as though I weren’t just pulled in a couple of directions emotionally, but physically.
That feeling stayed with me over dinner with my friends. I worked with them some 20 years ago and that alone probably contributed to the weirdness. Seeing them made me think of a time when New York was my city, my hometown. I had a part-time restaurant reviewing gig on the side back then, and it meant hanging out at hot new places, tasting everything. Now I was a part-time interloper, listening to people talk about their current jobs, their current president. I’m an American, but I also have another country’s politics to think about, and to fret over. While I participated in the conversation, I couldn’t help but think that I can just get on a flight and not spend much time thinking about Donald Trump’s latest escapades.
And the prices…really, people, restaurants, even places I love, are ridiculous. My tablemates, knowing I’m a wino, sorry, make that someone who knows a thing or two about wine, especially those from Italy, had me choose. I looked at Barbalu’s list, and it’s a good, selective one. But the prices sent me into alienation mode again, when the cheapest bottle is around $40, and I know that I can go to a decent restaurant in Umbria and pay a few euros for a nice carafe of whatever’s local. I know that restaurateurs have to price drinks like that in New York; it pays the rent. I suppose that when people are using corporate cards it doesn’t matter much, but how can regular people afford to go out?
They don’t. They take the ferry and the subway back and forth every day and night. And that night, the weather was clear and warm. I sat on the back of the boat and watched the tourists take snapshots of the skyline as we sailed across the harbor. Soon they got tired of the view and went over to the side to see the Statue of Liberty. Right about then, an African-American girl with a distinct city kid accent sat next to me. Two boys, somewhere around 14, stared at the harbor view, which is nice enough during the day, but truly stunning at night. They laughed, they joked, they wisecracked like the city kids I’ve known all my life. They danced around, obviously flirting with the girl and competing for her attention and approval.
This being January with pretty lousy, cloudy, I don’t go out much weather, I’ve had a lot of time to read the early obituaries of Noma, which is closing late next year. In case you don’t follow “fine dining,” Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen that appears on every best-restaurants-of-the-world list. The place and its owner/genius chef René Redzepi have inspired a whole bunch of creative chefs who go out and pick odd plants in the forest or in tide pools, do something transformative with the stuff, and then charge scenester diners a few hundred bucks for the privilege of ingesting what they foraged and tortured. A night at Noma, for example, costs around $500 a person.
Noma will follow El Bulli and Del Posto to the big food court in the sky. To which I say: no great loss. It’s not jealousy—I was a part-time restaurant critic back in the 1990s, when the big deal restaurant scene hadn’t yet metastasized into the monster it has become. Still, there were previews of what was to come in multi-course tasting menus in a breed of French restaurants that, looking back, served as a bridge between the snooty old French establishments and brave rich-hippie vibe of Noma. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can think of a Noma fan as the foodie equivalent of an investment banker who collects Grateful Dead concert tapes.
I’m not going to lie. I thoroughly enjoyed my decade of dining at my newspaper’s expense. It made me really popular, because The Spartan Woman and I usually invited a couple of friends to come along so that we could sample enough dishes. We ate at the new wave of Spanish/Catalan restaurants, fancy French eateries, aristocratic Italian establishments, as well as the occasional Hong Kong style of Chinatown palaces that were just beginning to establish a beachhead in New York. The review pace was gentle—I was on the hook every four weeks for a review, so it was just enough to be fun and not enough to be routine and boring. And when our girls were old enough, we often took them along. (They were tougher critics than our friends, who were just thrilled to have a free meal at a hot restaurant.)
After 10 years, though, we’d had enough. By then we just wanted to hang out with friends and family, either at home or in a local ethnic restaurant where we’d like the food but wouldn’t have to pay homage to it. I remember a colleague once went to El Bulli, the restaurant in the Catalan region of Spain, which had pioneered “molecular” cuisine. I asked him how it was. “Tiring,” he said. I’m paraphrase, but he said something like, “It was so exhausting. Open this lid, inhale the fumes three times, then pour the contents onto this plate and stir counterclockwise 4.5 times, then eat using these tweezers.” Sorry, that ain’t food, that’s entertainment for a very small cult audience.
And then there was Del Posto in New York. Its owner sought to elevate (so they thought) Italian food to the same rarified altitude of classic French cuisine. Talk about flawed concepts from the get-go—”Italian” food (a term I have trouble with because this country’s eating habits are hyper-regional) isn’t supposed to be the snobby refuge of the wealthy. My neighbors on our hill, who tend sheep and have an organic farm, make ricotta that would make you cry it’s so good. But there are a lot of people like them here and they’ll insist that good food is their birthright, not just a boasting point for the bourgeoisie.
EATING IN ITALY ENCOURAGED my move away from culinary preciousness. For one thing, the dominant characteristic of food here is to find really good ingredients and prepare them in a way that lets them shine. There’s little torturing of plants or animal bits to make them something else. And with the exception of a few Michelin-starred places, there are fewer celebrity chefs lording over everyone. Hey, this is Italy, where everybody is a star, and no one cooks better than Nonna (grandma) or your mother.
I know I’m lucky; as a teenager I stayed with relatives my first times in this country. I had a front-row seat to the food culture, which basically was just as my mom cooked back in New York, although mom, being a native New Yorker, pretended to be a normal American every so often and would give us steak and potatoes or peanut butter sandwiches in our lunchboxes.
But it’s interesting to see the differences between the cultures of my two countries when it comes to eating out. In cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, it’s become a high-stakes scene (and is bouncing back post-pandemic). Rents are high, food and liquor and wine prices are through the roof, so in an attempt to squeeze some profit restaurateurs pay their staff peanuts. Noma’s Redzepi himself said that fine dining has become economically unfeasible, and his complaints mirror what thoughtful American restaurant chefs and owners have been saying. In the U.S., the handful of successful celebrity chefs expand their operations into empires. The Bastianich group, headed by matriarch Lidia Bastianich and run by her son, has 30 eateries spread across the world. Thirty!
This craziness is fueled by a media and PR machine that glorifies celebrity cooks and runs competitions on TV instead of showing people how to cook. And there’s a definite high/low culture thing going on. The well-heeled eat at one of the Bastianich or Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants; normal people eat at the Olive Garden, which cuts corners by not salting pasta water in an attempt to cut down on spending for pots. The well-heeled use their experiences as conversations starters, and they love to spend big.
It’s different here. Sure there are TV competitions; in fact Joe Bastianich is one of the stars of MasterChef Italia. But beyond that things tend to be more democratic. One of the biggest complements Italians give to a restaurant is “si mangia bene e si spende poco” (you eat well but spend a little). Restaurants are basically extensions of the small kitchens that many Italians have (most of the country lives in apartments; think of New York but better designed). Often, clans or groups of friends will go out because they can’t fit everyone into the kitchen or day room, but they know that their outing will lead to a great meal that won’t wreck their bank account.
It’ll be interesting to see what Redzepi comes up with next. He says he’s turn Noma into a “food lab” and try to figure out new models for feeding people creatively. El Bullï’s Ferran Adria said the same thing when he closed his legendary restaurant more than a decade ago. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t heard much of what his lab has done. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter to see what’s up there. In the meantime, buon appetito, enjoy what you eat, and don’t think about it too much.
Life here on our hill ain’t all sunsets and spritzes. Maybe it would be if we had servants. But we don’t; we’re just two retirees trying to have a little fun and adventure. Gotta say though, in the week since our arrival, life hasn’t been much of an adventure. It’s been pretty dull in a nice way, in fact, after a way too busy holiday run-up. Call us happy stay-at-homes, at least until tomorrow, because we’re planning a run into the big city of Perugia (pop. 170,000). And we’ve had to catch up on our lives here before we can descend from our lofty patch of land.
First things first: After a day or so of traveling packed like sardines into two Lufthansa flights—a wide bodied A 340 and a narrow body A320, then a ride in our man Angelo’s van, we got here with just a touch of jet lag. More importantly, and unlike our return to New York in the fall, we didn’t bring Covid with us, or catch it in an airport or while aloft.
Did I mention it’s winter here too? That means no lolling around at the café in the piazza, definitely no beach day trips and no dinners on the patio. It’s not as cold as it is in a Northeast U.S. winter, but the days are short, the nights long and chilly, and we’re greeted every morning with a sea of fog in the valley which, I have to say, is pretty stunning. People jokingly call it the Umbrian sea and these shots give a good idea why.
We still have to heat the house. As we were leaving back in October, the price for propane was going through the roof as fears of a long, cold, natural gas-less winter took hold. We have huge buried tanks to hold said gas, but even when Vlad the Ukraine Invader isn’t doing his genocidal mischief, prices are high—about 80 cents a litre—and it costs hundreds of euros to fill the tanks.
Luckily, the previous occupants of our house put in these clever Klover fireplaces. They’re hooked into the house’s heating system, so all we have to do is start a fire. A big fire—the pump that drives the fireplace’s heat into the radiators starts pumping at 50 degrees Celsius—that’s 122 degrees F. for the metric-challenged—and that takes awhile, and quite a few pieces of wood. The Spartan Woman, living up to her nickname, managed to stack most of our remaining wood next to the living room fireplace. Thanks to her our nights have been toasty and only a little smoky.
But that wood. Before we left, we’d pass our supplier on our way to the supermarket. He had great mountains of wood in anticipation of a gasless cold winter. I called a couple of times and he assured me about the supply. But then he added that he was so busy that he wouldn’t couldn’t guarantee delivery before we left. And so we looked at our dwindling supply warily, treading a line between staying warm and making sure we wouldn’t be left to freeze on later nights.
Last week, the wood dude and I made contact before we left. We texted each other, he said just call or write when we arrive, happy holidays, etc. I did, and he promised a delivery yesterday morning. It didn’t happen. We waited and worried. Should I call? After years of editing other people’s writing, I’m tired of being a nag, so I waited without nagging until after night fell. “I’ll be there tomorrow morning.” “Can you tell me when?” “Around 10.” Phew.
He was good at his word. This morning a little dump truck arrived and tipped almost 19 quintali—that’s 1800+ kilograms or nearly 4,000 pounds of the stuff near our garage door. It was not a little pile, nor was it all stacked in a pretty box. If it were packaged nicely, it would have cost a lot more than €340, which is a fraction of what propane would’ve cost us to heat the house for the same period. TSW, with her superior logistical skills, designated areas for big pieces, kindling, and in-between annoying pieces, and we went to work. I must confess that she did more; a bad back, the result of my Summer of Coughing, made me take breaks after every dozen of chunks of wood stacked.
It wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours. At least we weren’t shut-ins staring at computer/phone/TV screens. Fresh air! Clouds! And that Umbria sea just below us, shifting its shape as the breeze and sun played games with one another. What we didn’t especially like, but can’t do anything about, were the shouts of men in the land surrounding ours. They were hunting for wild boar, and every now and then shouts, the barks of hunting dogs, and rifle shots rent the air. That’s the kind of stuff they don’t put in the tourist websites. But that’s winter in the Umbrian countryside, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anywhere else right now.
But there’s more.
TODAY IS JANUARY 6, SO IT WAS TIME, we decided, to descend from our aerie. The sun was bright, the sky blue, the “ocean” floating around in the valley, and our Covid tests negative. So we get in the car and drive the 20-something kilometers (about 12 miles) into Perugia. Not a big distance physically, but psychologically, it’s a big gulf.
Especially today—this is the last weekend of the holiday season in Italy. We say “buone feste” here—happy holidays—not necessarily to be caring and sharing with our non-Christian sisters and brothers across the world. The season literally consists of three big holidays, and a fourth, December 8’s immaculate conception (or something like that), which kicks off la stagione Nataliza (the Christmas season). We wanted to how Perugia looks before they take away all the lights and trees and decorations.
The roads were nearly empty as we headed into town, but the Minimetrò system was packed. A 10-minute ride from the outskirts of town to the historic center and we were in the middle of a cast of thousands. Even better was a parade of antique cars. I’m not sure what a prewar Lancia or Fiat has to do with Epiphany—gifts to the Magi (us)? perhaps? Who knows. It was fun to watch these old beauties parade slowly by as people reminisced about their father’s or grandmother’s car that took them on beach holidays or to school.
One thing I wanted to do but forget on the way out was to get a hot chocolate. Italian cioccolato caldo is nothing like the thin, insipid stuff sold in the U.S. Think warm, intense, slightly less thick chocolate pudding. Next time…